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‘Wyatt Earp’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 24, 1994

As a mindless popcorn shootout, "Wyatt Earp" is highly watchable. Lawrence Kasdan's retelling of the cowboy legend reprises -- and often outdoes -- the deft mix of comedy and western lore the writer/director brought to his own "Silverado." But this three-hour drama, starring Kevin Costner as the straight-shooting marshal, takes its time sliding out of the saddle.

There are few stories that can't be told in two hours. Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" might be difficult, as would "The Hundred Years War: The Movie." But "Earp" -- and I should put my hand over my mouth when I say that -- should take an audience through the evening, not the night.

Starting with Earp's tenderfoot years, Kasdan and co-writer Dan Gordon try to show everything the eponymous hero (and sometime antihero) went through. Influenced strongly by his father (Gene Hackman), the young Earp (played by Ian Bohen) is instilled with two stalwart values: protect the family and uphold the law. These two impulses take him through years of episodes: He falls in love with, and marries, Missouri heartthrob Urilla (Annabeth Gish), until the union leads to bitter sorrow. Then he goes from drunk to horse thief to bison hunter to gunslinger and, finally, to the Dodge City, shoot-first-drawl-later marshal we all know.

Along the way, he enlists his brothers Virgil (Michael Madsen) and James (David Andrews) as deputies, and makes an unlikely friend of Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), an emaciated, tubercular scoundrel with southern-genteel airs. As Earp's law-breaking victims pile up, he builds more enemies. Eventually, the Earps and Holliday find themselves strutting to the O.K. Corral to face a slew of ornery Clantons and McLaurys (including Jeff Fahey and Rex Linn).

The movie hardly breaks biographical ground, but it closely follows the legend. Earp's dogged respect for law and family is challenged at every turn. His friend Holliday is literate in every vice. And when Earp falls in love with showgirl Josie (Joanna Going), it is at the cruel cost of Mattie (Mare Winningham), his second, common-law wife. For all his efforts to look out for his brothers, Earp is exposing them to constant danger.

Whether he's a bodyguard or a prince of thieves, a G-man or a fugitive, Costner remains handsome, blue-eyed and monotonous. His delivery is always tentative, dull and about an octave too high. But as Earp, his woodenness works well -- often to hilarious effect. When Holliday, on first meeting, keeps calling him "Wyatt Earp," Costner replies in his trademark deadpan: "Do me a favor: Call me Wyatt or call me Earp, but not Wyatt Earp." It's even better when his wife is cursing him for romantic alienation, as hostile gunfighters lurk outside. "There's people out there I need to kill," says Costner. "I don't have time for this."

Quaid, who lost more than 40 pounds for the part gets the Tom Waits role, coughing his lungs out and quipping through a throat cured with too many barroom whiskeys. When the Earp brothers debate whether to chase after a gang of assailants, Quaid enthusiastically recalls something his "Mama" told him: "Don't put off till tomorrow what you can kill today." If you go to this movie, you'd better put off tomorrow. But you may well be glad you took the night off.

"Wyatt Earp" contains wanton killing, sexual situations and poor shaving habits.

Copyright The Washington Post

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